Is It Too Early To Plan A Winter Trip to Rocky Mountain National Park? Naaaahhhh.

The winter of '08-'09 stuck around Rocky Mountain National Park. This photo was from mid-April. Could another banner winter be on the way? NPS photo.

An early season blast of winter made the news the other day when it actually snowed out Game 3 of the National League Division Series between the Phillies and the Rockies. With hopes that the storm was a harbinger of a bountiful winter on its way, here's a list of hikes to help you figure out what to do if you make it to Rocky Mountain National Park when the snow is deep and getting deeper.

While Rocky Mountain's busy season definitely falls during the summer months, a winter trek to the high country of Colorado shouldn't be immediately ruled out. The forests and meadows are great for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, wildlife is easier to see both because the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves and because the snow holds the traces of what passed by, and, really, does it get much better than relaxing in front of a nice fire with a hot drink after playing in the snow? Too, on occasion lower-elevation trails are free of snow, so you can simply don your hiking shoes, warm clothing, and head out into the mountains.

Here's a look at some of the winter hikes you can enjoy at Rocky Mountain, courtesy of the National Park Service.

East of the Continental Divide

Winter brings deep snows to Rocky Mountain National Park west of the Continental Divide. Lighter snowfall on the east side of the park leaves low elevation trails open for hiking. Trails below 8,700 feet (2,700 m) offer diverse opportunities to those who wish to travel without the aid of skis or snowshoes. The trails listed below are some of the more accessible hikes available to winter visitors. Before each outing, check with park rangers for local snow conditions and current avalanche hazards. The distances listed for the following hikes are one-way.

Destination.......................................................Distance.......................................Change in Elevation..............................................Difficulty

The Pool...........................................................2.5 miles..............................................200 feet..........................................................Easy

Getting There: At road closure on Moraine Park Road past Cub Lake Trailhead. Follow signs to Fern Lake Trailhead.

Beyond the Basics: The Pool is a turbulent water pocket formed below the confluences of Spruce and Fern Creeks with the Big Thompson River. The winter route is along a gravel road, which soon narrows to a trail at the Fern Lake Trailhead. While hiking this relatively flat trail along the Big Thompson River, look for beaver-cut aspen, frozen waterfalls on the cliffs, and the Arch Rocks. Elevation of lake 8,280 ft.

Destination......................................................Distance.........................................Change in Elevation.............................................Difficulty

Cub Lake.........................................................2.3 miles...............................................540 feet......................................................Moderate

Getting There: From Bear Lake Road, turn at Moraine Park; follow signs to Cub Lake Trailhead .

Beyond the Basics: The Cub Lake trail begins in the willow thickets along the Big Thompson River and continues upward through stands of pine and aspen. Hiking the trail, you pass through a varied landscape of moraines, cliffs, streams and ponds. Ice or deep snow sometimes makes the last mile difficult, and may require the use of skis or snowshoes. This hike may be combined with The Pool hike for a six-mile loop by taking a connection trail beyond Cub Lake to The Pool. This section of trail may also contain deep snow or ice.

Destination....................................................Distance.........................................Change in Elevation..............................................Difficulty

Chasm Falls....................................................2.5 miles..........................................400 feet...........................................................Moderate


Getting There
: Follow Highway 34 into Horseshoe Park. Turn onto Endovalley Road at the west end of Horseshoe Park and follow Endovalley Road over the bridge to the road closure.

Beyond the Basics: From the West Alluvial Fan parking lot, hike 1.5 miles (2.4 km) to the junction of Endovalley Road and Old Fall River Road. Along the way, you pass the remains of cabins used by the prison laborers who built Old Fall River Road early in the century. At the road junction, take the right fork and continue up Old Fall River Road one mile to the falls. Upon reaching Chasm Falls notice beautiful, but dangerous, ice formations. Negotiate this zone with caution. Chasm Falls elevation 8,960 feet.

Destination....................................................Distance.........................................Change in Elevation..............................................Difficulty

Gem Lake......................................................1.8 miles...............................................910 feet.......................................................Moderate

Getting There: Drive north from downtown Estes Park on MacGregor Avenue. Cross Highway 34 bypass and continue to sharp right turn and sign for MacGregor Ranch. Follow the blacktop ranch road to the parking lot.

Beyond the Basics: The shallow waters of Gem Lake are cradled high among the rounded granite domes of Lumpy Ridge. Untouched by glaciation, this outcrop of 1.8 billion-year-old granite has been sculpted by wind and chemical erosion into a backbone-like ridge. Signs of these erosional forces--pillars, potholes, and balanced rocks--appear midway along the trail to Gem Lake. Other high points include spectacular views of the Estes Valley and Continental Divide, and a curious balanced rock called Paul Bunyan's Boot. Gem Lake's elevation is 8,800 feet.

Destination...................................................Distance.................,........................Change in Elevation...............................................Difficulty

Deer Mountain...............................................3 miles...............................................1,075 feet........................................................Strenuous

Getting There: From Park Headquarters drive 4.5 miles (7.2 km) on Highway 36 to roadside parking at the Deer Ridge Junction Trailhead.

Beyond the Basics:
The route up Deer Mountain begins in a stand of mature Ponderosa pine and winds upward past lodgepole pine, aspen, and limber pine to the summit plateau, which offers spectacular views of the Continental Divide. While the lower trail generally has little snow, you can expect packed and drifted snow on the switchbacks. Snow cover on the summit may be three to five feet deep, making snowshoes or skis necessary for safe travel. Elevation at the summit 10,013 ft.

Destination...................................................Distance............................................Change in Elevation...............................................Difficulty

Upper Beaver Meadows..................................1.5 miles...............................................140 feet..............................................................Easy

Getting There: From Park Headquarters drive 2 miles (3.2 km) and look for the closed gate on the west side of the road in a hairpin curve. Park off the road surface on gravel.

Beyond the Basics
: Upper Beaver Meadows offers two hiking routes--the road which winds along the north side of Beaver Creek for two miles (3.2 km) and a trail that leaves the dirt road on the left, just inside the barricade. The trail crosses the stream and runs along the south side of the meadow at the base of the moraine. The trail and road meet at the parking area at the west end of Beaver Meadows. You may choose to make a loop by using both the road and trail, or you may follow either route in both directions. Hiking along the trail, you may see elk bedded down among trees near the trail or along the stream. Elevation 8,300 feet.

Hiking Safely

Winter in Rocky Mountain National Park is an inviting yet silently dangerous time for hikers. The season brings short days with strong winds, low temperatures, and rapidly changing weather. Be prepared for these conditions by carrying extra clothing for layering, as well as water and high energy food.

Prevent frostbite by keeping your extremities and face well protected. Watch for the first warning signs of frostbite--a tingling, then numbing feeling.

Avoid hiking in deep snow which is quickly fatiguing and creates hazardous holes for skiers and snowshoers who follow. When conditions are icy, use instep crampons or ski poles for extra safety.

What wildlife might you spot on one of these hikes? Elk are highly visible in the park, and while bighorn sheep are a little more skittish of humans and harder to spot, they could be spotted on cliffsides. Snowshoe hare call the park home, too, but are tougher to spot because of their camouflage. Ditto with ermine, better known as the short-tailed weasel during the other seasons. While they say wolves long ago were extirpated from the Rocky Mountain, there have been sightings of wolf-like animals in the park in the past year or so, leading some to believe that dispersers from the packs in Yellowstone National Park have headed south all the way to Rocky.

Fox and mule deer are other mammals to watch for.

White-tailed ptarmigan also live in the park, but generally at higher elevations than you'll typically reach in winter. Pine grosbeaks also live here, and if you're lucky you might spot a small flock of them.

All-in-all, Rocky Mountain is far from an inhospitable park in the winter. And the gateway town of Estes Park has some great hotels, B&Bs, lodges, and restaurants to frequent, and is never a dull place.

Comments

Agreed; that's a beautiful place in winter. The book "Snowshoeing Colorado" by Claire Walter describes several snowshoeing trails in Rocky Mountain in fairly good detail.

Another consideration in the backcountry in winter: avalanche safety. I took a course in it through Colorado Mtn. School in Estes Park a couple years ago and learned a lot.

I once spent four days walking on snowshoes breaking trail for my dog team in order to travel less than fifty miles. The snow was deep and powdery with a granular base. No one had been over it the entire winter. Local Indian trappers said that snow conditions were too difficult even for snowmobiles. My work required that I reach the next village, Bettles, and continue on to Anaktuvuk, an Eskimo village further north. It turned out to be one of the most difficult stretches of mushing I experienced during my time in Alaska. The only way to make progress was to pack the snow in front of the dogs and help them move the sled. We were on the trail for twelve or more hours a day. In many places It was necessary to go over the same stretch twice to pack it down enough for the dogs to get firm footing. Even then it was necessary to walk in front of the sled just behind the last pair of dogs while guiding the sled with a pole lashed to its side near the bow (referred to as a "gee pole") to keep the sled tracking the trail. At the end of the day camp had to be set up, dogs staked out, food cooked for the dogs, harnesses dried and, finally, fix a meal for myself. Five to six hours of sleep and it was time to break camp, load up, harness the dogs and do it again. It was absolute drudgery. I recall that the same day I made it to the next village three Indians from the village I had left came over my train on snowmobiles making the trip in a few hours. I later traveled over the same trail after it had been packed. The team easily made the trip in about seven hours and were still fresh at the end of the day. Every time I look at a pair of snowshoes I remember that trip.

As usual, great insight provided here, Kurt.

Rocky Mountain National Park has been getting dumped on and is such a great winter destination :)

Personally, I think it's even better than Glacier in the winter.

http://www.glacier-national-park-travel-guide.com

Perry,

Your preference for Rocky surprises me! Perhaps we need an out-the-field comparison, eh?

Rocky Mountain is very accessible in the winter, while Glacier is rather limited (and a little frighteningly remote).

Also, living in Boulder gives me convenient access to Rocky Mountain NP. Very easy for the park to grow on you :)